Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Moor's Last Sigh
Jonathan Cape £15.99
In his latest novel--the first in seven years--Salman Rushdie has returned to India, the country in which his first important novel, Midnight's Children, was set. Like that novel, The Moor's Last Sigh links family and social history. It tells the downfall of Moraes Zogoiby (nicknamed Moor), the last member of a great trading family from Cochin in southern India, who have built their fortune on spices. At the same time it tells the downfall of a particular type of India as communalist tension blows society apart.
As always with Rushdie, the reader should not expect straightforward accounts of family and social history, the one as background to the other. The plot incorporates elements of the fantastic and unreal as a way of challenging the solidity of appearances. This is a family riven by greed and secrets. Division and hate are built into its apparent unity. Lines are (literally) drawn between different branches of the family. Its greatness as an Indian family is belied by the fact that its members are 'outsiders', not once as Christians but twice as descendants of Portuguese Jews and even possibly Moors from southern Spain.
This is Rushdie's point. The history of the Da Gama-Zogoiby dynasty is the history of the fact that India is the product of mixture and crossbreeding. It cannot avoid--because of its history of repeated conquest--being the result of the meeting of many cultures. The idea that it is possible to scrape away those elements which have obscured the original Indianness of India can only be an illusion, and a dangerous and destructive illusion at that. It can become the start of a dreadful process of ethnic purification based on the claim that India should be for Hindus only.
So alongside the story of Moraes is the story of the rise of communalist politics (of events like the destruction of the Ayodha mosque, which Rushdie refers to), particularly in the figure of Raman Fielding and his followers. It doesn't take much to see in this character a thinly veiled portrait of the right wing Hindu chauvinist politician, Bal Thackeray, who currently controls Bombay. The family of the subcontinent is also riven by in-fighting and also in danger, because some members are attempting to purify its composition or impose a single image of itself, of catastrophic self-destruction.
The novel's title is an allusion to the expulsion of the Moors from Granada in 1492, which marked the end of the brilliant Arab civilisation of southern Spain. Its last ruler is said to have sighed as he looked back at the city he was quitting forever; whereupon his mother turned on him and said, 'Well may you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.'
Though the connection between this event and the events in the story may seem slender, Rushdie is using it to enrich his novel. At one level, it's a reference to other victims of historical purification. At another, it's a reference to feelings of deprivation, both personal and social. The expulsion from Granada is also the expulsion from paradise, a kind of fall from bliss. The exile dreams of a past where he was once 'at home' and secure, as against the uncertainties, perplexities and confusion of the present. Rushdie exploits the psychological aspects of this in Moraes' fraught relationships with his parents, particularly his mother.
He also explores it in another way. Moraes becomes the follower of Raman Fielding, a thug and terrorist. At first sight this seems rather unlikely, given the fact that Moraes is not Hindu and, as a 'crossbreed', the exact opposite of Fielding's vision of ethnic purity. Rushdie seems to be making two points here. One is that the victim can himself become a victimiser (a sense of being deprived of one's original homelands dovetails with chauvinist propaganda about ethnic originality being contaminated by outsiders).
The other is that when it comes to saving India from 'lawlessness', corporate big business (which is what the family trading firm has become) finds it has more in common with a rabble rousing fascist populist than appearance would suggest. Rushdie suggests a high level of collusion between these different branches of the 'family' of India.
Beneath the surface image of India, there are other images. Each layer conceals another. Rushdie's sense of the multidimensionality of the world he depicts--and of the way in which people fight over these different layers of meaning, seeking to cover them up as well as exposing them--is explored in another aspect of the novel, the paintings by and of Moraes' mother. Crucially, the plot involves a struggle to possess as well as interpret one particular work which consists of a painting painted over the top of another.
The novel ends with a kind of return to Granada, which proves to be hell rather than heaven. Whether the ending entirely works is not certain but the novel as a whole is fascinating and stimulating. The sooner we have the paperback, the better.
Eds Robert Blake and William Roger Louis
Churchill is the key figure in the mythological history that the Conservatives have constructed. He has been successfully portrayed as somehow embodying the essential characteristics of the British. How has this been achieved?
Most important is his leadership during the Second World War. This is at the very core of the mythology. What is particularly remarkable about this exercise is the extent to which Churchill quite self consciously created the myth himself, in his massive six volume history of the Second World War, a history that still perverts popular understanding of the conflict.
The importance of the war is easily demonstrated by considering what Churchill's career would have amounted to without it. His career before he became prime minister in 1940 was characterised by repeated failure. Indeed even the Norwegian fiasco that finally brought the Chamberlain government down and him to power was largely his responsibility.
He survived disasters that would have destroyed a dozen other political careers! During the First World War there was the Gallipoli disaster, in the postwar period the failure of British intervention in Russia, his performance as Chancellor of the Exchequer (one of the worst this century by general consent) and then in the 1930s his leadership of the reactionary opposition to Stanley Baldwin's reformist Indian policy and his championing of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis.
His opposition to the policy of appeasement was compromised by his sympathy for Mussolini in Abyssinia and for Franco in Spain. His opposition to Nazism had more to do with fear of the revival of Germany as a great power than with any distaste for fascism.
This career of failure derived from his character and politics. He was an unprincipled adventurer, interested only in power and possessed by an obsessive longing for military glory. Throughout his life he was convinced that he walked with destiny. This personal fantasy has become part of Conservative mythology.
In 1940, however, all was redeemed. Apparently Churchill's rhetoric inspired the British people to continue fighting against all the odds thereby saving the world from Nazi tyranny. This, of course, reduces total war to a schoolboy level of understanding.
The very idea that Churchill, a semi-alcoholic patrician, a man who had never been on a bus and was dressed every morning by his valet, somehow represented 'the British' is ludicrous. It conceals the true nature of the Second World War which saw the British state, still the greatest empire in the world, survive until Russia and the US became embroiled, and overwhelmed Nazi Germany by a tremendous superiority in men and material. The British role was always secondary and a good case can be made that, at least as far as military decision making was concerned, British survival was despite, not because of, Churchill.
What of this celebratory volume by 29 assorted academics and others? Most of the contributions repeat the Churchill myth. We learn from Ronald Hyam, for example that Churchill was neither 'a racist' nor 'an imperialist', from Henry Pelling that he 'was in no sense anti-union' and had great 'sympathy for working people' and from Richard Ollard that in 1940 he had saved 'civilisation itself'.
Only two of the essays offer anything new--Sarvepalli Gopal's 'Churchill and India' and William Roger Louis's 'Churchill and Egypt'. Gopal cannot help but reveal how reactionary Churchill was with regard to India in the 1930s and 1940s.
He reluctantly accepted the British had to withdraw in the early 1950s but hoped to provoke some sort of incident which would justify military intervention. On one occasion, when the worse for drink, Churchill told his foreign secretary, Eden, to tell the Egyptians that 'if we have any more of their cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter from which they should never have emerged'. A crude but succinct description of Western policy towards the Middle East.
The National Front and French Politics
Jonathan Marcus completed this book before the Nazi Front National (FN) achieved its most spectacular results in the French municipal elections in June. The FN captured control of three city councils including the naval city of Toulon (100,000 inhabitants), Orange and Marignane. On top of this there are now 2,000 FN local councillors and 11 MEPs. While many of the European Nazi movements have suffered serious setbacks, the FN has gone from strength to strength. Marcus argues that after the presidential elections in April the FN and its leader had 'reached a plateau' and would only 'tread water'. Even though this prediction has been proved wrong, the answer to their continued growth lies within this book.
The breakthrough for the FN came in 1983 with the election victory of a councillor, Jean Pierre Stirbois, in Dreux (a town close to Paris). Unlike the BNP in the Isle of Dogs, Le Pen was able to use this as a springboard for further electoral gains.
Marcus paints a comprehensive picture of how over the past ten years Le Pen has created a highly professional electoral machine at both local and national levels. The FN has around 50,000 members and its own daily paper. It is no longer on the fringes of society. The skinheads are still there but today's FN members are more likely to be 'middle class families and army veterans'.
The FN is trying to create its own ideological and political alternative. It is copying the French Communist Party by attempting to create its own 'far right culture' and it holds an annual fete which is modelled on the French Communist Party's Fête de l'Humanité. At the fete folk groups play and there is a funfair for the children. It is even possible to get a bottle of wine, 'cuvée du Front National', with Le Pen's face superimposed over an outline of France on the label.
One of the weaknesses of the book is that Marcus supports the view that because the Tories in Britain 'talked tough' on immigration this gave the BNP little room to exploit this theme. In France, he argues, the respectable sections of the right were slow to take up the arguments around immigration.
But Margaret Thatcher's racist speech about 'Britain being swamped by foreigners' did little to undermine the then Nazi party, the National Front, which had already been broken by the mass campaigns of the Anti Nazi League. The French experience shows that politicians from the mainstream parties have been just as prepared to use racism to justify their actions and rather than weaken the Nazis the opposite has occurred.
President Chirac made his name as the mayor of Paris who described immigrants as 'smelly'. But the left has been little better. The Socialist Party supports the call for voluntary repatriation. The French Communist Party (PCF) has also discredited itself. On Christmas Eve 1980 the Communist mayor of Vitry and other PCF sympathisers bulldozed the power supplies and staircases to an immigrants' hostel. Far from weakening the FN, the left has given Le Pen respectability and moved French politics to the right.
However, Le Pen's strengths are also his weaknesses. Unlike many of his European counterparts Le Pen has retained his respectability. But Marcus has shown that beneath the sharp suits and glitzy smiles a Nazi lurks and, like a leopard, he has not changed his spots.
Le Pen lost an eye attacking a socialist meeting in the 1950s. He was accused of torture in the Algerian war of independence and made his living selling recordings of Hitler and the French collaborator Pétain in the 1960s. In 1989 he stated that he believed the Holocaust was a 'detail of history'.
The problem has been that the French left has failed to challenge Le Pen effectively. Firstly most groups refuse to call him a Nazi. Secondly, though there have been massive demonstrations against the FN, no major march has actually confronted the FN. The anti-Nazi movement, as Marcus demonstrates, is closely connected to the leadership of the Socialist Party, who don't want a radical movement. This has enabled Le Pen to remain respectable, and the thuggish Nazi element to remain in the background.
Yet Marcus argues that opinion polls show that 75 percent of French people are totally opposed to the FN. Also the polls drop 10 percent every time Le Pen lets his mask slip. The will to destroy him is there but so far no political lead has been given. However, because of the failure of the left to press home its advantage and the worsening economic situation, Le Pen has been able to claw his way back.
Read with a critical eye, Marcus has written a good account of the rise of Europe's most successful Nazi. It also shows that Le Pen has developed a strong political organisation that will be hard to dislodge. There is now, more than ever, a need for a united campaign to drive back the Nazis in France.
The Runaway Brain
While human beings are clearly animals, they are obviously highly unusual ones. The fact that humans possess language and consciousness makes them unique. This has led to all sorts of problems when scientists have tried to tackle human evolution.
This book is an attempt to explain why human beings are unique, and why human evolution can show the appearance of directionality. Wills argues that there is nothing 'mystical, magical or theological' about our evolution. He feels the answer lies in the brain. He also argues that by an extension of evolutionary processes occurring in other species, humans ended up with inordinately powerful and versatile brains.
The core of his argument is that pre-humans were caught in a brain-culture feedback loop. The idea is that, once humans had started using tools and language, this would give preferential chances of surviving to those with larger brains capable of processing more information. In turn more powerful brains would allow more complex language and tool use, feeding back into a selection for still more powerful brains. Once the runaway evolution of the brain had started, there was no stopping it. This is not a completely original idea. It has been put forward by, amongst others, Richard Leakey in his book Origins Reconsidered. However, Wills provides a wider range of both genetic and fossil evidence.
Wills differs from scientists who believe that modern humans have a relatively recent origin, arising from a small population of hominids containing a so called Mitochondrial (or African) Eve around 200,000 years ago. He produces evidence that 'Eve' might have lived as long as 1 million years ago.
He argues that subsequently the hominids spread around the world and evolved in parallel, in several independent populations into Homo sapiens. This is the so called multiple-origins model of human evolution.
Wills is aware that this model has been used to justify racism. But he is far too soft on one of the originators of the theory, Carleton Coon. In 1962 Coon argued that modern humans consist of five distinct races which had each evolved separately into Homo sapiens. Some races (ie Caucasians) had evolved further than others.
In fact the genetic differences between races are minute. If instead of looking at visible differences such as skin colour and facial shapes, we looked at the small differences in blood groups we would find a different story. It would make sense to classify some Africans as being in the same racial group as Belgians, whilst others would be closer to Native Americans.
However, the fact that multiple origin has been used to justify racism. and the genetic similarity between the so-called races, is not enough to reject the theory out of hand.
Despite its flaws this is an interesting and valuable addition to the literature on human evolution.
A History of Communism in Britain
Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse
What attitude should socialists take up towards the past of their movement? Labour Party 'modernisers' seem to agree with Henry Ford that history is bunk, fit only for the rubbish heap. Revolutionaries, however, while not adopting an uncritical attitude to the past, should search it for inspiration, and for examples that offer both positive lessons and warnings of possible pitfalls to be avoided.
Aside from the Chartist epic of the 1830s and 1840s, probably the most important period in the history` of the British labour movement came between the beginnings of the Great Labour Unrest of 1910-14 and the defeat of the General Strike of May 1926. During those years millions of workers began to shake off the traditions of timid reformism and engaged in a series of massive confrontations with the employers and the state, against a background dominated by the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
These years also saw the emergence of the Communist Party of Great Britain. This sought to marry native revolutionary traditions to the Bolshevism that had triumphed in Russia. The CPGB was a product above all of the wartime Shop Stewards' and Workers' Control Movement. It attempted, increasingly systematically, to build up a base in the trade unions.
It is on these early years of the CPGB, between 1920 and 1926, that these essays concentrate. Most first appeared in the Labour Review journal in the late 1950s. This publication reflected the coming together of ex-Communists, who had left the party after the great internal crisis caused by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, with the orthodox Trotskyist group dominated for many years by Gerry Healy.
Essays like Brian Pearce's famous 'Some Past Rank and File Movements' represented a serious attempt to recover a past when the CP was a genuine revolutionary organisation. The writers also sought to show how the party was subsequently corrupted by Stalinism.
The most wide ranging of the essays, Michael Woodhouse's 'Marxism and Stalinism in Britain 1920-1926' is in many ways a stimulating and provocative piece, it nevertheless suffers from the influence of very dogmatic orthodox Trotskyism.
Woodhouse is scathing about the traditions of British Marxism before the Russian Revolution. He also highlights the way in which the CP tended to tail the left trade union leaders during the leadup to the General Strike. Woodhouse describes this period as a 'pre-revolutionary crisis' and argues that the CP's actions were a consequence of 'the subordination of the CPGB to the anti-revolutionary line of Stalin'.
There are several problems with this analysis. Firstly, it is an exaggeration to talk about a revolutionary situation developing in Britain in the mid-1920s. Secondly, it is an oversimplification to portray Stalin as the dominant figure he would be a few years later. Zinoviev, as leader of the Communist International, was the main architect of Moscow's alliance with the British left union leaders. Thirdly, Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein in their book Marxism and Trade Union Struggle document a fairly consistent orientation by the CP on the trade union lefts throughout the early 1920s. They argue that this tendency was 'spurred on' but not created by Moscow.
None of these criticisms alter the fact that Pearce's and Woodhouse's essays are pioneering works in the history of the revolutionary movement in Britain.
The republication of this collection will allow a new generation of revolutionary socialists to study and learn from their forebears.
Hamish Hamilton £14.99
Anybody who read and enjoyed Sacred Hunger will be intrigued by this compact historical thriller, which has more than a touch of class.
The story is set in the 14th century against a brooding background of war, plague and fear of hellfire and damnation. It is a vivid exposure of the class ridden, priest dominated society of the time.
A group of travelling players break with tradition to perform a contemporary play. They enact the murder of Thomas Wells, a young boy from the northern town where they have decided to stay. Driven on by their own poverty and by their assumed roles, they unmask the murderer and so endanger their own lives.
The story is reminiscent of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose but it's much shorter and there's less Latin. That said, this is not merely a crude version of The Name of the Rose, it's a different book. It is a tale of class and corruption, power and injustice--quite like modern times.
Much of the power of the story is in its sensual appeal: snapshots of all the characters of medieval times, meaning conveyed by gestures as well as by words. Unsworth cleverly uses the roles and masks of the players in contradictory ways.
Our attention is held by the ingenuity of the players as they unfold and adapt their story; by the ingenuity of Unsworth in weaving the conventions of mime, music, poetry and argument to create a novel about the past that has a modern appeal. Some critics have said that the novel is anachronistic in that it backdates modern attitudes to the past. But this is part of what makes the book exciting--and relevant.
At £14.99 this is an expensive book, so it's probably worth waiting for the paperback to come out or else get a copy from your local library.
Simon & Schuster £9.99
'Mr Irving, I am not Jewish and I am not part of the so-called "Jewish conspiracy". But I was in Belsen and in Auschwitz, and I can tell you that the mass extermination of Jewish people did take place. For you to claim otherwise is insulting. I know this because I was there, stoking the fires. And I saw it happen.'
This is how Donald Watt addresses the English writer David Irving, just one of those 'historians' who seek to deny the Holocaust. This little book is a powerful counterblast.
Its author is an ordinary Australian who ended up in Auschwitz-Birkenau as punishment after breaking out of a German prisoner of war camp. Once there he was set to work as a stoker on the fires of Crematorium 2--one of four giant crematoria where the bodies of those gassed to death were burnt to ash.
The extent of the horror that Watt saw in the seven months he spent in Auschwitz meant he never uttered a word about his experiences for 43 years. He was lucky to escape the death camps and to be returned to a POW camp where he survived.
This must be one of the only accounts of a prisoner who was such a close witness to the mass murder. Watt writes:
Peace and its Discontents
The signing of the peace accord between the PLO and Israel in September 1993 was hailed as a victory by the media. Two Israelis (Rabin and Peres) and one Palestinian (Arafat) received the Nobel Peace Prize. But, as Edward Said makes clear, it was not a victory for peace but a betrayal of the Palestinians' rising against the Israeli occupation--the Intifada.
For a token form of recognition of the PLO by Israel, Arafat got practically nothing in return, in fact Israel has been absolved of all its past crimes. The armed Jewish settlers in the occupied territories still encroach on Palestinian land and live under their own separate laws. Networks of roads are being built that both connect the settlers to Israel and isolate the existing Arab settlements. Land and water are being stolen on a daily basis.
The Palestinian police still enforce laws enacted by the Israeli occupier and are now actively suppressing those who are opposing the Israelis. No development of the desperately poor refugee camps can happen without the permission of the Israelis. Although the Israeli army, the IDF, has withdrawn from some areas, the Israeli state has total control over who can enter and leave Gaza and the IDF can return as it wishes.
This book is a collection of articles chronicling the 18 month period after the signing of the agreement. Said was part of the Palestinian Diaspora who fled the Zionist terror that founded the Israeli state in 1948. As a member of the Palestinian National Council until 1991 he voted for the 'two state' strategy of the PLO in 1988. This was a major concession by Palestinians because, for the first time, it recognised the state of Israel and pressed for an independent Palestinian state on the Left Bank. Yasser Arafat was elected president of the new state.
Said now rails against Arafat's betrayal of the Palestinian cause by effectively accepting an Israeli 'Bantustan' of Gaza and Jericho. He is angry about the appalling situation of the Palestinians. Yet it is not clear what this book is trying to achieve. As in any series of articles on a single topic, it tends to repeat itself and it can be a bit wearing to read the same opinions time and again.
The signing of the agreement is not put into a historical context and even the conclusion at the end of the collection merely summarises the articles themselves.
Said puts no real concrete alternatives to Arafat. His only proposals are to have a census of all Palestinians and to get rid of Arafat. Ultimately that makes this a frustrating book.